Top drawer producer-director Hal Prince died on July 31st in the unlikely city of Reikvik, Iceland, although, come to think of it, nothing was unlikely for this man who spent his working life exploring the world and its ways.
We had two things in common: we were born just 3 months apart in age, and we both learned early on that theater was where we wanted to spend our working lives. Both New Yorkers, he was taken to Broadway to see White Horse Inn and Orson Wells’ Macbeth when he was 8 or 9; I had to wait until I was 12 to discover that there even was such a thing as a play. It was a comedy produced and directed by George Abbott called What A Life. What Hal Prince and I knew – instantly – was that we were determined to spend our working lives in the theater.
In the beginning, when I first met him in 1953, he was an apprentice assistant stage manager for the same George Abbott, and I was a “baby agent” handling talent at MCA, an international agency where I was assistant to star agent David Hocker who allowed me to seek and sign young talent on my own. I had spent 3 years onstage myself; two of them in a Broadway hit called Darkness At Noon which toured the nation for 9 months when it closed in New York. I loved that experience but feared the uncertainty of an actor’s life, so I veered to the other side of the footlights to make my living as a theatre agent “helping young things to grow.”
Hal’s path and mine crossed several times during the 1950s as I placed a client or two in shows that he co-produced on Broadway. He hoped that one day he would direct. His imagination and talent, honed under the watchful eye of his mentor, Mr. Abbott, had inspired him to reach out in that direction; and in early 1962 the musical A Family Affair was struggling in Philadelphia on its way in to Broadway. It was the first musical with a score by John Kander, and it desperately needed directorial help. I suggested Hal Prince for the job because I’d seen his work on a touring production of The Matchmaker. He took over and improved the show to the point where Walter Kerr in New York called it “a most appealing almost.”
But he was launched, and for the next 60 years he has encouraged and advised me and been part of my professional life. When, after 20 years as a talent agent, I found the courage to return to the theatre as actor and playwright in 1975, he was always there to treat me as a colleague in the theatre. He’s always made himself available to me as agent, actor, playwright, librettist. He encouraged me to write my memoir “Supporting Player,” in which I was able to cite chapter and verse of his many helpful and kindly deeds.
The range of his success is infinite. That he remained a loyal and supportive colleague -that he had an uncanny way of making one feel better for simply spending some quality time with him – made him remarkable and unforgettable.
I’m but one of hundreds of aspirants over the years whom he’s taken the trouble to support. Though I was not a close personal friend, and I certainly did not move in the rarified world to which his fame and fortune took him, what exposure I did have of him has enriched my life. He was rare, he was precious, and he will be sorely missed by many.